Read the transcript of our podcast “Hospitality and Wireless Networks: Why the old rules of design no longer apply” to find out more about the hotel Wifi challenges, below:
Colin: My name is Colin Thomson, and I’m the Head of Marketing for Hutchinson Networks. We’re here today to talk about hotels and their Wi-Fi challenges. I’ve got with me Michael Wendt, one of our Solution Architects, who’s going to talk about just some of the difficulties that the hospitality and specifically the hotel industry face with their wireless networks.
Michael: I’ve worked in technology for about 17 years. After I left school my first job was an IT apprentice with my council, and I’ve been in the industry ever since.
Michael: Technology and IT, in particular, was always my second interest, after making it as a footballer, from an early age at school. I started off as a first-line support worker for PC and desktops. That sparked my passion and interest in networking and particularly Cisco networking technology, and so my interest developed when I was around 20 and has only grown from there.
Michael: One of the most common hotel WiFi challenges I tend to see – and I travel around and stay in hotels quite a lot myself – is the issue of interference. When I say interference, I mean both from the access points themselves and what we call co-channel interference i.e. where you’ve got multiple access points using the same channel and therefore causing contention. But also the majority of the time you’ve got hotels in built-up areas so interference can also come from external sources such as neighbouring buildings. We call all of this contention for airtime.
Michael: The way a wireless network works is what we call a half-duplex technology and by that I mean you can’t transmit and receive simultaneously, you can only do one or the other at a time. Where the access point is on a particular wireless channel anybody else on that channel effectively has to play by the rules, and we can have only one device that transmits while everybody else has to wait. The more devices you have, the more contention there is on that channel, and effectively it means that the overall wireless performance is going to be reduced because people have to effectively wait until somebody else is finished before they can send their data if that makes sense. That’s one of the leading hotel wifi challenges.
Michael: The number of devices that guests will bring with them hotels has increased – hypothetically we’re talking about guests bringing at least two devices, but possibly there could be even three or four per guest: each of those devices is going to expect wireless connectivity. When we say expect we mean Wi-Fi is no longer considered nice to have, we do expect wireless to be in hotels, and we expect it to perform well. Each of those devices is going to be using connectivity in general but also real-time video applications things like FaceTime and Skype. All of those require sufficient bandwidth, and if you think about all of those additional devices that are coming in if you remember what we talked about before the airtime and the contention, all we’re doing is effectively adding multiple mobile devices and making that problem worse.
Michael: From my experience, what I’ve seen and heard a lot of people doing these days is a comment on how good hotel Wi-Fi is, and this can influence whether they book or not. I’ve done it myself. If you’ve been somewhere before and the wireless is poor a lot of people will just use their hotspot which, again, even by doing that can cause interference over wireless and will only compound the issue further. By doing nothing and by offering guests a poor a wireless experience, hotels are going to reduce their customer base and frankly increase the risk of losing customers. The Wi-Fi isn’t up to scratch because everybody nowadays is at work or in the evenings they need it even for calling home and if they can’t get a reliable service, then they’re going to look elsewhere.
Michael: I think a lot of it just comes down to legacy approaches. Wireless in general – not just in hotels – was once considered just nice to have, and hotels would just concentrate on providing basic connectivity or what we’d call “coverage only”. It would be designed in such a way that the overall coverage spans as far as possible to provide connectivity for as many devices as possible. And that was fine once upon a time when maybe the bandwidth wasn’t an issue, and people just used the network to browse the internet. But now, people want first and foremost additional capacity for those additional devices as we discussed earlier. What people are expecting from their Wi-Fi now regarding performance and what they’re pushing over in terms of applications means that what we call “coverage only design” isn’t viable anymore. A lot of hotel Wi-Fi challenges are specifically just down to the legacy approach.
Michael: If we jump back to the legacy approach, what a lot of people would do is put as few access points as possible to provide coverage in as wide an area as possible, and as a result we find that a lot of access points would be placed in the corridors rather than in the room. Now the general best practice is to get the Wi-Fi access points as close to the devices as possible, so effectively the signal has to pass through as little material as possible before it gets to the device. Also, we’ve discussed placing access points in the corridor as an issue because effectively they have a clear line of sight between themselves, so there’s nothing to reduce or attenuate the signal between them. But, if you move the access points into patrons’ hotel rooms it’s a double benefit because it’s closer to the client so they get better connectivity and also the walls in between the rooms will help attenuate the signal and therefore reduce the interference. Not a lot of people realise that that’s the best thing to do, but ultimately there’s not an optimum number of wireless access points – some hotels are in very very built-up areas, and you’ll likely have to compete for sort of signal.
Michael: There are general guidelines. It’s important to stress that no two wireless networks are ever the same and the design should always be based around requirements of the individual location. What works for one may not necessarily work for the other, but general guidelines should be able to reduce the amount of conflict that signals experience. To help reduce the actual traffic over the air regarding client capacity depends on your access point hardware, but as a general rule there should be no more than around 30 client connections per access point, or per channel shall we say. So that’s something to take into account. If you think about a hotel and placement of access points, you can probably second guess the number of clients per room, but when you think about meeting rooms and several conference areas with higher density, they would have a different set of requirements to what you have in a guest room. Bespoke approaches are usually required, and although you can get a bit of a rough idea, it is always best to take accurate set requirements and then design based around that.
Michael: Effectively one which is designed to fit around the customer requirements whatever they may be. It must consider the type of client devices, how many client devices there are, and what the hotel is expecting guests to do. Those types of the requirement are always key, and we should design around that. There are other hotel WiFi challenges to consider too, such as making the solutions scalable. The ability to provide services consistently in multiple sites potentially across the globe in a scalable manner leaves room for chain expansion.
Michael: What we’d always recommend is to get a site survey done first and foremost because that’s going to give us an excellent idea about what’s going on over the airwaves. That’s the first thing we’d do before making any recommendations. The site survey and getting the output from that service is always going to be essential regarding deploying or replacing networks. Take the Cisco Meraki solution, for example, it’s cloud-based which means that you can manage it from anywhere in the world as long as you’ve got Internet access. The provision of new access points of new networks can be configured in advance, so it’s a very light touch solution in terms of deployment. And that means if the IT resources of the hotel are stretched or limited, you know a lot of the work can be preempted before devices even get to site. All somebody needs to do is plug it in. So all those things, even in a global environment, would help with the deployment or refresh of a solution first. First and foremost, getting that survey data is going to be invaluable and resolve many hotel Wi-Fi challenges.
Michael: Cloud-based platforms are actually very easy to manage and maintain, not least because they enable management from anywhere. This means hotels don’t need to use on-premise controllers which may be restrictive in terms of where you can access dashboards from – wherever you can get an Internet connection you can log into that cloud-based dashboard. In terms of Meraki in particular, all of the configurations are done in a friendly graphical interface, it’s very intuitive for the user. So it’s very straightforward and easy to configure and scale. The lack of IT presence isn’t necessarily an issue because you don’t need to be onsite to manage it, it can be done from anywhere in the world.
Michael: The initial set up is very straightforward. Again, in terms of Meraki, once you’ve received your order and your license adding devices to the Meraki dashboard is as simple as assigning a license key. Once you’ve got that in place, you can then start configuring your network. But actually, with Meraki, the entire hotel network could be configured in less than a day. It’s a very light touch. In the case of multiple sites, once you’ve got one site configured you can use that as a model and a template to simply clone it for another site. There’s also the option of using open API which Meraki makes available. You can configure thousands of sites if you know how to use the API within a matter of minutes.
Michael: I think a “good” Wi-Fi solution – if you want to categorise it as such – is vital in hotels these days. You know the guests expect that as I said it’s not considered nice to have any more, good wireless is expected. That’s good connectivity and good performance on all devices. It’s it’s just essential, so I mean a properly designed wireless network, but also one of the key things which often gets overlooked is the wireless can be as good as anyone can make it but actually if the Internet bandwidth is not up to scratch, and that’s going to be a bit of a bottleneck as well. So while we have to make every effort, we can make the wireless solution seamless and perform as well as we can. We also have to think about other potential issues things like the Internet bandwidth needs to be there. All of these need to be taken into account because without a good wireless service I think hotels are going to suffer to keep customers.
Michael: What you’ll find now is that the wireless connectivity is first and foremost build on the wireless system. If we think about Meraki dashboard and what it’s doing in the backend, it’s gathering a lot of important analytics data from the clients which are connected. There are statistics like the visit count on a repeat visit or a new visitor time statistics and certain areas will all be linked to heat maps on their locations within the building so you can analyse that data to analyse the success of campaigns which have been running or maybe improve the guest experience. You can feed the data into targeted advertising campaigns when people visit you can push them loyalty offers etc. So there’s a whole load of opportunities which come up simply by taking the data which has been gathered from the wireless network. Often you find when people are looking at their wireless solution or looking at implementing a new wireless solution a big issue that people might have is often the security side of it.
Michael: We should be designing wireless networks especially if it’s for any kind corporate use we’re going to attach it to the corporate network and security has to be key as a whole or at best practices around that in terms of securing the data from a guest point of view. Security is paramount because if you think of things like GDPR, there’s a whole lot of regulations in place about the use and storage of data. That’s one thing that people can connect to on a wireless network that needs to be secured. You also don’t want to necessarily want to have devices connected to each other, and you don’t want to see them touch corporate resources as well. There’s a security key to any design and a solution like Meraki network all of that security is in place very easily. You also have dedicated security radios which are used purely for what they call wireless and choosing prevention so you know it’s scanning for rogue networks and preventing attacks on the wireless networks. It’s just overall a more secure solution.
Michael: Multi-site services, as I said before the characteristics of a building, will be different. So we should never really take for granted that what works for one site would work for another you know the materials of the walls and the floors and ceilings will be sometimes dramatically different depending on which building you’re in. So we could design a wireless network which would work very well in one area or one building, but then we go ten blocks down the road to another building which looks the same, and we go in, and we find that it wouldn’t work. So the requirements are very much specific on a location by location basis. That’s I think where people have maybe fallen in the past with the wireless designs. They come up with a model, and they replicate that model across all of their sites, and it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Likewise if it’s going to be a refreshed network shouldn’t really just be taking for granted that the new access points would just go in place of the existing ones because quite often that can have a negative impact as well because I said before once upon a time wireless networks were designed to cover a larger area and to focus more on performance and more on coverage whereas now we try to concentrate the signal a little bit better. Yes, we need additional access points, but that’s because we’re taking capacity into account. The site services are key, and we need to be very bespoke per site.
Michael: The hospitality staff themselves would get from implementing a new Wi-Fi solution. Absolutely. And if you think about the adoption as you said about IoT devices and the use of things like tablets more and more and mobile devices which staff are using you know a properly designed wireless network should provide seamless mobility so they should be able to walk around the building and get access from anywhere. The wireless network can be used to integrate with their existing systems. So having correctly designed a wireless network which performs well would benefit staff just as much as it would guests.
Michael: I think more and more you’re going to see the adoption of cloud-based solutions to overcome the hotel WiFi challenges. It scales easier than on-premise solutions. You could have a chain with hundreds or even thousands of sites worldwide, and it’s going to be that single pane of glass or a centralized model which makes it easier for deployment and easier for maintenance. And as you know that consistency which maybe you don’t get in other solutions the use of wireless is only going to grow within the hotel. Wireless networks need to be designed with the scalability and flexibility in mind to be able to cope with that growth. But taking all that into account whether it’s a cloud-based solution such as Meraki or any other maybe other cloud solution or on-premise solution if the fundamentals of the wireless design aren’t correct, any solutions is not going to function or perform well, so getting the design correct fundamentally is first and foremost priority that brings us to our cause for this podcast.
Michael: They can check our Cisco Meraki Solutions or check the recording of our previous webinar focused specifically on wireless challenges in general and also some best practices and recommendations. Also if you look on the Contact us section people can fill in any specific requirements that they’d like to discuss. I’ll be happy to take to take those details in and potentially arrange a phone call or workshops that’s not a problem with regards to the hospitality industry specifically.
A fast, reliable and secure Wi-Fi network is vital, but to get it right requires a custom solution that is fit for purpose.